Seven years ago, Dharamveer Solanki, a Hindu, left his home in Pakistan’s Hyderabad city, never to return. When his train crossed the border into India, Solanki said he felt happier than ever before.
“It felt as though I had been reborn,” he said, sitting inside a bustling refugee colony on the outskirts of New Delhi, where he and hundreds of other Hindus who fled Muslim-majority Pakistan have built a new home.
Asylum-seekers like Solanki are the main beneficiaries of a law that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government introduced late last year, laying out a path to citizenship for people from six religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who arrived in India before 2015.
The law excluded Muslims from the list, and that determination of rights to citizenship based on religion triggered protests across India that resulted in a fierce police crackdown and deadly violence. Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution.
But for the Hindus of Pakistan, Modi’s long-held commitment to providing them refuge has drawn more and more across the border even before the new law was enacted.
In the 15 months through March 2019 India’s home ministry dealt with 16,121 applications from Pakistani nationals for long-term visas. In preceding years, the number of visas granted rose from hundreds to thousands.
The flow of migrants has stopped temporarily as borders have been sealed to control the spread of the coronavirus.
But many remain desperate to cross, Solanki said. They often come on 25-day pilgrimage visas and stay on until they get citizenship.
Solanki is still waiting for India to grant him citizenship, as the process has now been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak in the country. He was unaware that there was a World Refugee Day, but when told by Reuters that it would fall on June 20, he was very clear what he would like to see.
“The citizenship law has been passed. Our people should now get land and benefits as citizens,” Solanki told Reuters at his home in the Majnu Ka Tilla neighborhood on Delhi’s northern fringe.
The settlement where he lives is a cluster of cement, brick and wood huts, with no electricity or water supply, off a busy road. Around 600 people live there. Many of the young men work as hawkers or, like Solanki, as laborers.
Several said they lived in better conditions in Pakistan, but they felt safer in India.
Support from Hindu hardliners
A few miles away, across the heavily-polluted Yamuna River, a newer settlement has sprung up in the woods beneath a highway overpass called Signature Bridge.
In July last year, when Reuters began observing this community, there were only a few rickety huts. But now hundreds of people live there.
The huts are built with wood from the surrounding forest. There is no electricity or water supply, and families cook on wood-fired stoves.
“At least here our daughters are safe and we can freely practice our religion,” said Nirma Bagri, a 35-year-old woman.
Here, in a country they have mostly known through stories passed down by parents or grand-parents who lived in pre-partition India, or through Bollywood films, the refugees are slowly trying to assimilate.
A young couple at the settlement was so elated with the law passed in December that they named their daughter born that month “Nagarikta,” the Hindi word for “citizenship.”
Charitable Hindus often offer donations of food, clothes, solar lamps, and other household items.
During a visit to the settlement in the woods in February, Reuters journalists encountered members of the right-wing Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who said they were organizing education classes for the children.
The group has ties to Modi’s ruling BJP, have been blamed for violent attacks on minority Muslims, and have a stated aim of turning India into a Hindu supremacist nation.
While confirming they belonged to the VHP, the men declined to give their names. Refugees told Reuters later that the VHP men had told them not to speak to the media.
“We are trying to build a life here,” said Solanki. “These people are just helping us.”